08.31.09

Why the Lion of the Left Was Right

The Daily Beast’s Meghan McCain on what senators of both parties—and tomorrow’s politicians—can learn from the life and career of Ted Kennedy.

Like many Americans, I watched as Senator Ted Kennedy was laid to rest over the weekend after his year-long battle with brain cancer. The day marked not only the end of the Camelot era, but seemed to signal the final passing of many things politically. I certainly didn't agree with Senator Kennedy's politics on many issues, but as I listened to his friends, family, and Senate colleagues—including my father—tell stories of the man they knew, what was so evident was that Ted Kennedy always believed you could find compromise on the really important matters.

My father regarded Senator Kennedy as an old-school politician who brought a sense of camaraderie to the Senate floor. Alas, this era of collegiality and respect, the era of Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan, is over.

I remember meeting the senator around age 14, going into his office with my father and thinking what a larger-than-life figure he was. Broad, booming voice, wearing a bright blue suit—he looked exactly the way you picture a Kennedy in your mind. His personality took up the entire room.

Growing up, I remember my father often speaking highly of Senator Kennedy during town-hall meetings and his stump speeches, always mentioning their relationship as an example of a Republican and Democrat working together constructively to bring about change. One memory that my father recently spoke about was when he and Senator Russ Feingold were given the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, but the weekend of the ceremony happened to coincide with my little brother Jimmy's birthday. So my father called Senator Kennedy to explain that he wouldn't be able to attend because of my brother’s birthday. Senator Kennedy told my father to bring Jimmy along and promised him they would celebrate his birthday in a memorable way. My brother and father still talk about that birthday because the Kennedy family went over the top with multiple cakes, lots of presents, and several renditions of “Happy Birthday.” It was obvious that Senator Kennedy understood the importance of family and balancing those duties with the complications of political life.

Above all, I know my father regarded Senator Kennedy as an old-school politician who brought a sense of camaraderie to the Senate floor. Alas, this era of collegiality and respect, the era of Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan, is over. The recent reaction in the blogosphere to Ted Kennedy’s death proves that. After reading some of the discourse online, I was both surprised and disgusted at what was being written. I was shocked that even in death, people were having partisan quarrels about his legacy which led me to writing a tweet saying, "I just don't know what kind of life of anger you lead if you can't put politics aside for a moment to respect a man’s passing..." Immediately, this post was used yet again by some as an example of my "secret liberalism." Because what—apparently I can only respect a politician who had served nearly five decades in the Senate if he was a Republican? I don't know how or why we got to this place in politics. Why death is used as yet another excuse for mudslinging and party rhetoric. It is depressing to think that we have come to an age where you can only mourn a man's service to his country if he abides by every single political tenet you believe in.

Whenever people ask me if I want to run for office, my answer is always no. Among the many reasons is that I don't want to go into an industry where there seems to be a complete inability to meet in the middle on issues. Why would anyone want to work in an us-versus-them environment? This is why I have always had tremendous respect for politicians who are willing to fight for what they believe in, but understand how to compromise to get something done. When I talked to my father on the phone this weekend after Senator Kennedy's funeral, he said to me, "Those that don't believe there are second acts in politics didn't know Senator Kennedy".

If nothing else, I hope that the death of Ted Kennedy inspires high-school students in civics classes and political-science majors in colleges all across the country. If they listened this weekend to all Senator Kennedy was able to accomplish in his remarkable life, they too will realize why public service—in any capacity and for either political party—is and should continue to be a worthy calling.

Meghan McCain is a columnist for The Daily Beast. Originally from Phoenix, she graduated from Columbia University in 2007. She is a New York Times bestselling children's author, previously wrote for Newsweek magazine, and created the Web site mccainblogette.com.